Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Last night's vodka tasting was a lot of fun. I think we were the only four from our bus group (#25) there, as I didn't recognize anybody, but this morning we have a nodding acquaintance with new people, especially this woman, who had more fun than anybody. I don't know her name or where she's from but I'm betting Texas!

We were there to taste six different vodkas...

Gunter a member of the crew from Austria graciously showed us how to drink each type.

I don't drink much and took tiny sips of each kind, but threw most of it away. I wanted to go to the tasting mainly for the ambience and to take photos! We all agreed that the Diplomat was our favorite kind. Nobody but me liked the Absolut Currant, but since I'm used to flavored vodkas from Cousins Days, I did kind of like it. (I also liked the Ukrainian vodka, which was a brown color and flavored with chili pepper.)

Today was scheduled to be a restful day, with only one stop, in Yaroslavl, in the mid-afternoon. We would take on fuel and water there, flush the tanks, and have a city tour, but most of the day was spent hanging around the ship, relaxing. In the morning, Katherin led her daily exercises up on the Sunshine deck. We watched.

After the exercise period, we had a fascinating lecture, by tour guide Victoria, on Gorbatchev and Perestroika. She gives an excellent lecture and made me sad that I had not attended her previous lectures on Russian history and one special one on the Romanoffs. Certainly got a look at Gorbatchev that I'd never had before, and learned what a tremendous change there was in the way of life of the Russian people at the end of the cold war. It made a big difference hearing about it from someone old enough to remember it.

While the talk was going on, we were passing by a very picturesque area of the Volga, with tiny villages and lots of beautiful churches visible along the shore.

The afternoon's excursion was into the town of Yavaslavl, founded by a modest guy named Yavaslavl, in 1010. Our tour guide was Olga and she was excellent. Another of those who knew Russia before and after Gorbatchev, she had many good things to say about the changes he brought about with the end of the Cold War. The town is about to celebrate its 1000th birthday and so things have been spruced up or are being spruced up for the occasion. There is supposed to be a huge celebration, though Olga sounds skeptical about how much that was promised is actually going to take place.

We visited the beautiful church of Elijah the Prophet...

This is another place where you must pay to take pictures, and we didn't, but the frescoes which cover every wall and ceiling were so spectacular, I had to sneak a photo from the camera, hidden inside my bum bag.

We had half an hour to stroll around the city center. Walt went off to find an ATM and I stuck close to the town square and took pictures of people enjoying the big fountain, and also wandered around looking at the special displays that have been put up in preparation for the anniversary celebration. These were two of my favorites...

While I was taking these pictures I got approached by a young guy who was tryijng to interview people about their thoughts of the display and Yaraslovl's 1000th anniversary. We limped along in his not very good English and my non-existent Russian and I think we completed the interview. Then I told him he had to let me take his photo.

We took a stroll along the promenade overlooking the river and found some guys practicing...something. I'm not sure what!

And then we stopped at a museum to see (and for some people buy) some lacquer boxes. This is "the" souvenir to bring home from Russia and the price is astronomical. I found a box I liked that was "only" $338 (American)!!!

It was good to get back on the bus again and head for the ship. I told Walt I was going to skip tomorrow's excursion to Uglich, but then I attended the day's briefing and it sounds like a fairly easy day and Uglich has "the biggest souvenir shop on the river." Now how can I pass that up, even though I'm buying next to nothing.

So we are ending today's adventures and we'll see what tomorrow brings. Right now I'm just happy that I seem to have a decent internet connection!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Get Thee to a Nunnery

Lemme tell you, I have a whole new perspective on nunneries and monasteries after our stop, supposedly at Goritzy, but actually the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery. It seems that the aunt of Ivan the Terrible, Efrosinia Staritska established a nunnery here and was eventually imprisoned in her own nunnery. Other women were banished to nunneries (like Peter the Great's first wife), and died here. Men were exiled to monasteries and died here. I lost track of how many. But Katerin had told us that this place was "in the middle of nowhere" and she certainly didn't exaggerate. This is where we got off the ship.

There are actually a couple of buildings here, one a souvenir stand and one an almost-completed snack bar, both are new within the past month, Marina told us. We stood there on the gravel waiting for buses to appear, which they finally did, in a huge cloud of dust--five buses from five different bus companies!

With guest guide, Tatiana, we drove about 10 km over a VERY bumpy road to the town of (I think it's spelled) Karolia. I could be wrong about the spelling. But anyway there is the largest monastery in Russia there, umpteen hundred hectares, consisting of lots of churches. Now see, I always thought that "monastery" and "church" were kind of synonymous, but apparently not Here, the monastery is the grounds and the church is a building inside. There is an active nunnery here with 11 nuns (presumably none have been banished here in the 21st century) and an active church with, I think, 5 priests. Apparently women are more holy than men, or at least more dedicated.

Tatiana explained all the churches in infinite detail, but I didn't get much out of it, because I was trying to walk on the cobblestones without breaking an ankle. I do know that St. Cyril was here and that St. Dyonisus was here. One painted the other. I think it was Dyonisus who painted icons of Cyril. See what a great student I am? I do remember (I think) that the buildings date from the 15th to 17th century...

With the one on the right below perhaps a bit newer.

We stopped inside one small church and heard a quartet sing a song. Walt and I bought their CD. It seemed the proper thing to do. They also have another interesting way of raising money. You can take pictures inside the icon museum, but you must pay a fee to do so. Needless to say, my camera remained in my bag! I've never been a big icon fan, though our Ukranian friend Andrij and our Ukranian wannabe friend Bill loved icons. However, some of the embroidered icons done by Aunt Efrosinia were lovely. In Russian winters when you have been banished, you have lots of time to embroider! I did learn more about iconostasises, though (like there is rhyme to their reason, or vice versa, which I never knew before.

When we returned to the ship we were in time for a Russian tea with an obscene assortment of pastries to sample and a lecture on how a samovar works, though I don't think that you're supposed to pour tea made in the kitchen into it!

I think I had enough goodies to hold me over until dinner in 2 hours and the vodka sampling after that!

Last night, before dinner, there was a Q&A with (L to R) Dieter, the Captain, and Vadim the interpreter, led by Katerin, our Program director.

We learned, for example, that women aren't captains because they have to communicate with other captains and sometimes the language gets too rough for women to hear (lots of scoffing at that!), that it takes 350 bottles of red wine per cruise and something like 3,000 eggs and other such trivia that was really kind of interesting (and which I have now forgotten, of course).

Then Katerin did her nightly briefing, talking about the next day's itinerary. At the end she invited us to taste something called Kbac (pronounced something like "kvass"). She said it is a typical soft drink of Russia and that it is made out of brown bread. She said she would describe the taste, for her, as something between "not my favorite drink" and "awful."

She then invited the staff to pass out cups of Kbac for us all to taste and I would say that she described it perfectly. It tasted like drinking thin, weak, carbonated brown bread. It wasn't the best thing I had tasted. It also wasn't awful, but definitely not something I'd be bringing home to share with the family!

We went down to Mike & Char's cabin after the briefing and helped ourselves to some of Mike's vodka, over ice, and one of the chocolates he brought back to the ship after his solitary excursion into St. Petersburg. There was just enough time to finish all of this when it was time to go up to the next floor for our "Russian dinner." I think the thing that made it a "Russian dinner" was that the wait staff all dressed in typical Russian costumes. It seems to me that the menu each night is usually something Russian already!

But everything was wonderful from the salad to the borscht to the "meat loaf" (still not sure what that meat was...perhaps pork, but definitely nothing like any meatloaf I have had in the past) to the blini for dessert. We ate with Bill and Barbara from Philadelphia, who were delightful people and who have lots of travel experience, though this is their first with Viking.

After dinner there was a George Gershwin concert up in the Sky Bar, which Walt and I went to. Vladim Vinogradov, the ship's pianist, did jazz stylings of 9 familiar Gershwin tunes, but he "accompanied himself" on something that sounded like a harmonica. This is what he looked like...

It was fascinating, and at times haunting (especially for "Summertime"). I took video, which I will post, along with other videos, when I get home, assuming I don't lose them between here and home!

Monday, June 28, 2010


Today was the stop I have been most looking forard to, and it did not disappoint. Kizhi is a state historical open-air museum (a UNESCO World Heritage site) on an island in the middle of Lake Onega, and is the farthest north that our travels will take us.

"The collection of the Open-Air “Kizhi” Museum includes 89 monuments of wooden architecture: old chapels and houses, windmills and granaries, threshing barns and racks for drying crops…The gem of this collection is the 22 domed Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior, 37 meters height. The Church of the Intercession of Holy Mary and the Bell-Tower located nearby emphasize the harmony and magnificence of the main Church."

The prize of the collection, however, is the Church of the Transfiguration. I stood on the deck of the ship this morning, watching the island come into view, my eyes fixed on the spires of the church.

We got off the ship and gathered in our usual groups, prepared to make the 3 km walk around the island.

As we got to the entrance to the museum, the ever-present, always pleasant Dieter, who is the restaurant manager, was there to see us off.

The church is spectacular. One of those edifices which is photographable from every angle.

It was completed in 1714, during the reign of Peter the Great and supposedly built by one man, using no nails (wooden nails were not "invented" until later), who is said to have tossed his axe into the lake when it was finished, saying that there was never a church like this and never would be again. Whether the story is apocryphal or not, I think it's fairly safe to say the statement was true!

There are 22 domes, the most of any church in Russia, all created out of hundreds of aspen shingles.

Beyond the church is a collection of wooden buildings, all brought there to preserve the culture of the native people. Like Mandrogy, there are craftsmen engaged in the traditional activities of the Karelia people, but unlike Mandrogy (a) they are pleasant!, and (b) it seems more "scholarly" than touristy. Yes, there are shops, but only by the boat dock and those are tiny and don't take plastic. It seems that the people here, perhaps like I imagine colonial Williamsburg to be, are here to preserve a culture primarily.

We went inside a small church

and heard a brief hymn sung by three singers, one of whom reminded me of our old friend Ed Andrews (Now Father Alexander, O.P.)

I was glad I had brought the Flash Video so I was able to record it.

We visited a typical home and heard how the people lived.

I liked the part about how the youngest and the old people slept on top of the oven shown above, to keep them warm in the winter. Always take good care of your old people!

We watched this woman crocheting the most intricate "snake-like" designs using teeny, teeny little glass beads. Char bought one of her necklaces at one of the shops, but I didn't have time to check them out.

We continued on around the island to other wooden structures. I liked the way the fence was laid out.

Out in the field we watched a mother seagull with her babies, and some in our group were dive bombed by angry terns, who were obviously trying to protect their own nests, hidden somewhere out in the field.

The wild flowers were beautiful.

Mike and Char have really lost their touch, I'm happy to say. Our tour guide said that it poured rain all day yesterday, but today is was clear and sunny, with only a pleasant breeze. We could not have asked for a more perfect day, weather-wise.

We made the trip back to the dock, completing our 360 circle around the Church of the Transfiguration, and back onto the ship just in time.

I was happy that I was NOT one of the last back.

But despite our schedule, we didn't leave right away. It was announced that there was an "emergency medical disembarkation." One older woman had to be taken off, with her daughter-in-law, for some sort of medical emergency. They rushed a stretcher to the ship.

I didn't find out until later who the patient was. I was too busy trying to get a picture of this great dog. I am very much missing our dogs right now.

Tonight we are apparently having a Russian dinner. Not sure what that means, but I will find out soon and will report tomorrow. I missed most of the afternoon activities (a couple of lectures and a tour of the captain's bridge) because I hadn't slept well the night before and took a long nap--and then took advantage of having internet connection to write this entry.

Today has been a GREAT day. If I never leave the ship again on this trip, it would have been worth it to come to Kihzi.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cue the Crafts People

When I fell asleep last night, the ship was stopped, waiting for the drawbridge to open. When I woke up this morning we had not only passed into the Ladoga river (largest on the continent of Europe--and pronounced by our tour guide as LA-doh-ga, and by our Program Director as la-DOH-ga, so your guess is as good as mine!), but we were approaching the end of the lake and going into the Svir River. As expected, there was no internet access.

It was a relaxing morning with talks and classes. This poor guy (Misha) started to give us an overview of the territory and history of Russia, but had to sit down because he wasn't feeling well and when he moaned and put his head in his hands, we convinced him to postpone the lecture!

Maria, another of the tour guides, however, had better luck with her guide to Russian souvenirs and how to know what you are getting and what you should expect to pay (not really important information for someone with no credit card, of course!)

Around lunch time, we came to the first lock, where we would rise 12 meters up from one level of the river to another. So cool...and so different from when we did locks in England a few years ago.

On the left is entering the lock. On the right is same view from the other side of the ship,
only now with the water having raised the ship to the higher level.

Fifteen minutes after we were on the lake, we docked in Mandrogy. When passengers get off the ship, we have to turn in our key cards and get a kind of a pass to take with us. Some people are so incredibly rude. Just as we docked, a woman, who is leaving the tour one day early (July 3, I believe) came to the desk and tied up the time of the only person at the desk for at least 15 minutes while 200 passengers lined up behind her trying to turn in their key cards. She wanted to know where her connecting flight would be, how she would get to the airport, would they call her a cab...? The Program Director saw the problem, ran over, and started handing out passes and I got out of there as quickly as I could but when I left the ship, this one woman was STILL monopolizing the clerk's time and people were still lining up to get their passes. Sheesh!

Mandrogy is supposedly a village where they keep the old Russian crafts alive. Lots and lots and lots of metroshka dolls! In reality, one of the passengers, Jimmy, got it right when he started taking video and whistling "It's a Small World" as background music. All that was missing were the cute little characters to take pictures with the tourists.

Instead there were quaint villagers dressed in quaint costumes in quaint little shops doing the old handcrafts for the shops where tourists can buy them for big bucks. The problem is that Russians don't do "cute quaint" very well. Mostly they seem to do "surly quaint," which doesn't mean they aren't talented or that their wares aren't gorgeous, but only that you feel like you're bothering them if you stop to watch or take a picture. I don't think I saw a one of them smile.

And I swear they sent in a call from central casting to get locals to show up to eat in an open air gathering place and listen to Russian music so the tourists would think they were watching quaint little villagers doing what they would have been doing in the old days.

(also several of the crew of the ship got off and played volleyball on the playing field...and I wondered if that was part of their job description, to provide a bit of local color, too!)

My problem is that I grew up in California around show biz people and I think in terms of Disneyland and movie production and things like Central Casting, I guess!!

We did visit the Vodka museum, however, so I could tell my mother that we had done it, though there will be a vodka tasting at some point on the trip. Don't know when yet. Doesn't everyone think of "Mom" when they see displays of vodka?

And we managed to do our share of shopping. We weren't looking for craft but more crap and found that in abundance.

This was a 3 hour stop, but I think most of us were back on the ship in 2 hours and ready to take off back up the Svir River. It was such a beautiful trip. Down farther on the river we had passed lots of housing settlements and lots of people living, playing and fishing on the shore, or just off of it. Now we were getting into the wilderness and it looked like this for mile after mile after mile (still does, in fact, as I write this...)

We were remembering when land in our own country looked this beautiful and unspoiled for so many miles.

We had a lesson in Russian this afternoon and then a fabulous roast leg of lamb dinner, preceded by a shrimp cocktail with cognac which was unbelievable, and followed by creme caramel (the next best thing to creme brulee). We went through another lock during dinner, which raised us up another 14 meters. When we wake up, we will be on Lake Onega.

Tonight we are choosing our optional tours in Moscow because we have to sign up for at least one of them tonight.

Tomorrow we dock at the town of Kizhi at 8 a.m. and start our walking tour to the Church of the Transfiguration, a wooden church which was built entirely by one guy, who used only one tool, and not a single nail. It's supposed to be spectacular. I don't have a clue whether there will be internet service there or not, so again I don't have a clue when this will get posted. I just know it won't be tonight! But I have not regretted for one single second bringing this computer with me!

As I get ready to get into bed (but probably not to sleep for awhile, it is 10 p.m. We are farther north here than we were in Helsinki and this is what it looks like outside our window this very minute.

Notice how high the sun is--above the top of the window!